Marketing Space to Baby Boomers
I’ve put this off long enough, but it needs to be said: we still need to market space exploration, development, and settlement to Baby Boomers (born ~1948-1963, now aged 45 to 60). Why? The answers are simple: they’re still a large chunk of the workforce—the vast majority of the aerospace workforce—they haven’t all retired yet, and they still have most of the money. As they do retire in earnest, they will turn into—if they have not already—crotchety, older versions of themselves, suffering from what Alec Guinness called the “vices of old men”: mistrust and caution. They will have their health care and Social Security checks to consider, and will not want anything interfering with federal spending on them—including NASA. It’s no surprise that AARP is now one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, spending in the tens of millions every year.
We have one primary advantage with keeping space “sold” to the Boomer generation: they are also NASA’s primary supporters because they grew up with and helped launch Apollo. If you want to know what cultural events the Boomers experienced, a viewing of the movie Forrest Gump or American Graffiti will do nicely: Sputnik, racial integration in the South, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis, the “space race,” the erecting of the Berlin Wall, the assassination of JFK and later his brother RFK, the marches and assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, the “Summer of Love,” rock ‘n’ roll, the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Woodstock, and the various movements that would impact Generation X into the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The Boomers were children of America’s post-World War II prosperity, as the Greatest Generation came home and set to building a peaceful, more prosperous nation than they had known during the Great Depression. The nation itself, while not exactly at peace, was not exactly at war, either. There was the Cold War, which threatened utter annihilation via nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and there were police actions in various places to contain communism, Vietnam being the largest of such conflicts. As the World War II generation set to remaking the world, their children, made comfortable by that world, had the time and leisure to change things. They were encouraged to speak their minds and were the first generation of “teenagers” that companies marketed products to explicitly. Unlike Generation X, who was told they would be the “first generation in America to do worse than their parents,” Boomers were told they could do anything. And in a nation that sent men to the Moon, such conceits were reasonable.
The problem with Boomers, if I may say so from my Generation X blogger’s soapbox, is that they set to remaking everything in their own image, from music to culture to the media to relations between the sexes to clothing, and not all of it was for the better. However, they were a large cohort, and so they had power. Jim Morrison, who was actually a pre-Boomer (born 1943), got the anthem just right: “We want the world and we want it now!” As in the French Revolution of 1789, everything was up for grabs, and subject to question or destruction if it didn’t please the masses. Down with marriage! Down with the church! Down with The Man! Down with the military! Down with bourgeois morality! The problem with throwing all those things out, as the French learned, was that the things that replaced them could be much, much worse.
But I’m getting off my track here, as I feared I would. The question before us is, “How do we keep the Boomers supporting space?” Again, the fact that they grew up with Apollo should count for something. We need to ask them if they want their Gen X and Millennial children and grandchildren to feel the same excitement that they did. Isn’t that worth something? Do they want their kids and grandkids to have the same opportunities that they did? Aren’t space exploration and development exemplars of unlimited opportunity?
Another angle: again appealing to Boomer self-interest, what about space-based medical research and spinoffs? Weightlessness results in weakened immune systems and loss of muscle and bone tissue, which are also problems affecting the elderly. Might space not provide an opportunity to keep Boomers younger longer?
Angle #3, the one Mike Griffin has been using now and then: We are in another space race, though a slower one, with the Chinese, Europeans, Russians, and eventually the Indians and Japanese. Do we really want to get that far behind again before we decide to catch up? Apparently so.
Angle #4: Emphasize the environmental benefits of space development. This can take multiple forms, from Earth observation satellites to space-based power sources (space solar power or helium-3 fusion). Along with this argument one can throw in the mining of asteroids and the Moon for metals and minerals that are becoming harder and more expensive to find. And mining itself is a dirty process, with ground water contamination often an unhealthy side-effect. Take those activities into space and import power from space. High-density energy sources from space allow for clean energy that does not require us to cut back our high-powered lifestyles.
Angle #5: Retiring Boomer scientists and engineers can have late careers as teachers, trainers, or mentors for the next generation. These retirement careers can supplant income lost from full-time jobs and enable Boomers to pass on their knowledge.
Angle #6: New vacation/retirement opportunities. Suborbital space tourism is already generating enough buzz to keep people’s eyes fixed on Mojave, California and other godforsaken spots as the next phase of cutting-age adventures. Imagine what orbital or lunar tourism will do. And what if we finally manage to build large-scale settlements at L4/L5 or on the Moon? Wouldn’t lower gravity be a benefit to any senior? (Of course they’ll have to be healthy enough to survive the lift to orbit first…)
Angle #7: Investment opportunities. The Boomers might be big fans of the welfare state, but they're also the same "Me Generation" that enjoyed the big gains of the '80s. "Greed is good," or so Gordon Gecko claimed. And like any good group of Americans, they're not above making a few extra bucks if they think a space venture is a good investment.
Angle #8: Space could provide some unique opportunities for estate and funeral planning. Consider the money being made on sending one’s ashes into space. And what about tax-free annuities that fund your grandkids’ settlement of the Moon or Mars? It’s a break for the Boomer, and if the kids decide they don’t want to live in space, they take the tax hit, not Mom and Dad.
These are just some thoughts I threw together for an ISDC presentation. No doubt there are others. The point being: we need to keep the Boomers interested and engaged in space activities before they decide that medical expenses and cash handouts are more important to them than the frontier that might make America rich enough to pay for them.
Now let’s see what sort of ruckus this will cause.